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Blades banking on big business during playoff push

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The Saskatoon Blades enter the weekend as the top junior hockey team in the country.

Sporting an 11-game winning streak, the no. 1 ranked Canadian Hockey League team is poised for a long playoff run as players look to bring home the team's first Western Hockey League championship in its 60-year history.

"If you can come to SaskTel center to watch the Blades play, you got a pretty darn good chance you're gonna go home happy and you're going to see a winning product," said Blades vice president of business operations Tyler Waryk.

As good as the team's performance on the ice has been, its off-ice staff are also looking to make the most of a once-in-a-generation season.

After losing just two of its 25 home games this season, the team sold out of its playoff pass —which lets fans see every playoff game for $129 —in just over 31 hours.

Buzz is building, and so is the revenue. Attendance, merchandise sales, and exposure are all on the rise, and it's welcome news in an industry that was struggling not too long ago.

"The pandemic seems like ages ago, but it really isn't that far away," Wawryk said. "Coming out of year one of the pandemic, we saw about a 30 to 40 per cent decrease from pre-pandemic attendance numbers."

Lee Genier, the Saskatchewan Rattlers President who has decades of front office experience with teams in the CFL, NLL and the CEBL, says a year like the Blades are experiencing can be a huge lift.

"Having a playoff run and run is such a bonus because you never know when you're going to have them," Genier said.

Wawryk opted not to get into specifics about the team's finances, but said the playoff passes pre-sold last week will roughly "fill the lower bowl".

According to SaskTel Centre's technical layout, that's roughly 5,000 seats — and many more people are expected to join the party once the playoffs begin.

As inflation costs have made operating a junior team more expensive than ever, Wawryk says the number of fans needed for the Blades to break even for any home game is close to 5,000, up from roughly 4,200 a few years ago.

Wawryk said another benefit of having such a strong team is being able to get back into the community after a few years of COVID-19 restrictions preventing the team's usual outreach.

This week, Blades players were bagging groceries, joining minor hockey practices, and visiting care homes. However, the team is struggling to monetize that connection with fans because of ongoing supply chain issues.

"Depending on what size you will wear, you probably couldn't get a Blades jersey. And with how good the team is this year, everybody in Saskatoon wants a Blades jersey," Wawryk said.

"We probably could have sold a ton more over the last few months. We just simply couldn't get the inventory in."

Most sports franchises in North America budget their finances for the regular season, with the playoffs considered a bonus. As the Blades continue one of their best seasons ever, members on and off the ice are hoping an extended playoff run can sustain the team for years to come.

"Obviously, this year is kind of a once-in-a-decade or once-in-a-generation team that we have on the ice," Wawry said.

"Building that brand affinity, building that connection to our fan bases is crucial and critical for us, especially in these high times to help us get kids through that next cycle that will inevitably happen."

The Blades' next game against the Brandon Wheat Kings is Friday at 7 p.m.

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